Many white men of my generation grew up with an inferiority complex when it came to sports. In the 1970s, it was impossible not to notice the rapid takeover of most contact sports by blacks. Football, basketball, and boxing, most of all.
We could hold our own in baseball, and still dominated sports such as tennis and golf. But for those of us who valued the rougher and more athletic endeavors, this was little consolation. When it came to sports that required running, jumping, and punching, most white guys I knew were willing to concede that we were second best.
I still remember how disappointed the men in my family were when heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney, truly the last Great White American Hope, was stopped in the 13th round by black champion Larry Holmes on June 12, 1982. At the time, Cooney was a serious contender and a real threat to Holmes. He hit incredibly hard and had recently wiped out top ten guys like Jimmy Young (who had nearly topped Muhammad Ali in 1976) and Kenny Norton (who had once beaten Ali and had given Holmes all he could handle in 1978). Holmes, on the other hand, was an unpopular champion due to his lack of charisma and his generally inarticulate and surly attitude. He also lacked the razzle-dazzle of Ali and the firepower of a Mike Tyson. Holmes’ primary assets were his stamina, his durability, and a solid jab. Most of his best wins were ugly and came late (for instance, against Cooney, Mike Weaver, and Earnie Shavers).
For Cooney to conclusively lose to a champion like that was even more disheartening for whites. At one point during the fight, one of Cooney’s trainers tried to exhort his man by saying, “America needs you!” He was right. America did need Gerry Cooney. White America did, at least. This was why President Reagan had a phone installed in Cooney’s dressing room and not Holmes’. Reagan and the rest of white America felt it was time for one of their own to reclaim the storied title of heavyweight champion of the world.
But it was not meant to be.
My gut feeling is that something inside of American whites died on that day. We began to doubt ourselves. We stopped taking ourselves seriously. We became the butt of jokes and didn’t seem to mind it so much. Two pop culture moments in the 1980s and 1990s that I can remember engaged in this sort of thing: Coming to America (an Eddie Murphy comedy movie) and The Naked Gun 2 1/2 (from the producers of Airplane!).
In the former, as the black barbers discuss why Joe Louis was the greatest fighter of all time, a little Jewish man with a thick Yiddish accent (played by Murphy in ‘white face’) interjects: “Vhat about Rocky Marciano!” At the time, Marciano (who retired in 1955) had been the last white heavyweight champion. The barber (also played by Murphy) dismisses the Jewish man in ebonically crude and vulgar fashion: “How come whenever we talk about boxin’ some white guy’s gotta pull Rocky Marciana out ‘dey ass?”
A few years later in The Naked Gun 2 1/2, the deadpan gumshoe Frank Drebin (played by Leslie Nielson) advises boxing fans to “never bet on the white guy.” While considered funny then, these kind of jokes wouldn’t have played before the night Gerry Cooney lost in crushing fashion to Larry Holmes. Remember the movie White Men Can’t Jump? Well, apparently we can’t fight either. Ha. Ha.
Fast forward to 2016, and that joke isn’t so funny anymore. Like with countless movies and serial television programs these days, the dead seem to keep rising.
While blacks still dominate boxing and represent most of the sport’s elite (for example, Andre Ward, Deontay Wilder, and the untouchable Floyd Mayweather), whites have been making a comeback. In the early aughts, two white UK fighters, Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe won world championships, with the latter, a super-middleweight, retiring undefeated in 2008 after beating black hall of famers Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins. Since then, many of the top middleweight to light heavyweight fighters have been white, most prominently, Kelly Pavlik, Carl Froch, Lucien Bute, Mikkel Kessler, and Sergey Kovalev.
Then, of course, there’s the heavyweight division, which has been enduring an invasion from the former Soviet Union since the 1996 Olympics. Last year marked the first since 2004 when neither of the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers served as a world champion. The Klitschkos are amazing physical specimens, with the elder Vitali standing at 6 feet, 9 inches, and his kid brother Wladimir standing at a mere 6 feet 7. These guys both have adonis-like physiques, impeccable dedication, college degrees, and intellectual interests outside of boxing. For example, they both play chess and helped promote the Vladimir Kramnik-Peter Leko chess championship match in 2004. Vitali Klitschko retired in 2012 after 11 title defenses with a gaudy record of 45-2. He was involved in the Orange Revolution over a decade ago and is the current mayor of Kiev. Wladimir is still active. With a 64-4 record, he was defeated by decision on November 28, 2015, losing his title after 18 consecutive defenses. It was his first loss in 12 years. The man who beat him, Tyson Fury of the UK, is also white.
The heavyweight division in general has been loaded with former-Soviet whites for past ten-to-twelve years with names like Chagaev, Maskaev, Valuev, Povetkin, Ibragimov, Ustinov, and Dimitrenko littering the lists. Perhaps they never broadcast the Holmes-Cooney fight in the USSR.
Another aspect of the recent upsurge in white pugilism can be found in mixed martial arts. People have known for a long time that white guys do very well in MMA. This is in part because wrestling, a sport in which whites have long excelled, is a big part of it. Furthermore, MMA requires 4-ounce gloves instead of the 8-to-10 ounce gloves used in boxing. This gives punchers a much better chance of hurting their opponents with one shot. Large gloves, on the other hand, give the speedier, flashier types (i.e., black fighters) an advantage in today’s boxing, since there is less risk attached to every photogenic move they make. This wasn’t the case years ago when the gloves were smaller, and white boxers such as Tony Zale, Jake La Motta, Joey Maxim, and Rocky Marciano dominated the sport. This also is not the case in MMA where, with 4-ounce gloves, even a grazing shot can put your lights out. As a result, there have been many white champions and dominant fighters in mixed martial arts. A quick rundown includes Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, Conor McGregor, Frankie Edgar, and many others.
As with almost all sports in which they compete, blacks also over-perform in MMA, with pound-for-pound greats like Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Demetrius Johnson being the most dominant. But even against these guys, white fighters have performed well. Weidman recently stopped Silva twice. The Swede Alexander Gustafsson lost razor-thin decisions to both Jones and Cormier. And Ian McCall once fought Johnson to a draw.
This point was punctuated quite clearly on September 10, 2016 when newly crowned UFC heavyweight champion Stipe (pronounced ‘stee-pay’) Miocic knocked out his hulking black opponent Alistair Overeem in the first round. It really wasn’t much of a fight. After being knocked down by a punch, Miocic fended off a guillotine choke, got to his feet, and bullied Overeem around the Octagon until his man lay senseless on the canvas.
Miocic, who hails from Cleveland, is of Croatian descent and doesn’t care who knows it. He is a gruff, no-nonsense tough guy who likes to brutalize people. His intensity is a thing to behold. After destroying another top contender in January 2016, Miocic got within feet of UFC president Dana White and primal screamed at him for his title shot. White — who went on to endorse candidate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention — later admitted that he found Miocic extremely intimidating.
While it is questionable that Miocic will hold on to his belt for long (in the UFC heavyweight division, no one does), his recent victory should remind white people everywhere that, despite what happened on June 12, 1982, we can fight. Moreover, we can win.